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Which Patriots second-year player is primed for the best season?

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The Patriots aren’t worried about a sophomore slump.

Over at SBNation.com, Jeanna Thomas is wondering if certain teams and players have to worry about the sophomore slump- the notion that certain breakout rookies will regress back to the mean in their second year in the league.

For example, will the Dallas Cowboys duo of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott be able to repeat their magical 2016 season? Or will Dak look like a young quarterback and will teams find a way to focus on and slow down Elliott?

Will Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill manage to sustain his production without WR Jeremy Maclin and as the top wide receiver on the roster? Or will he be exposed as a gadget player? (“I belong No. 1 over Tom Brady,” Hill said about his NFL Top 100 ranking. “Tom Brady, I’m calling you out. I’m No. 1.”)

The New England Patriots don’t approach their sophomores with this mentality. In fact, head coach Bill Belichick universally expects his sophomores to take a step forward because of their comfort in the Patriots program.

“You usually see a level of jump from those [second-year] guys,” Belichick said earlier in June, “because they’ve been through our system before and have a better understanding of what’s in the league and other schemes and so forth. I think all those guys from our rookie class last year have all made good progress – definitely ahead of where they were last year.”

The 2016 season was good for the Patriots then-sophomores as OG Shaq Mason made one of the biggest “level of jumps” in the league, going from a below-average guard to an exceptional one. There was also progress made by C David Andrews, CB Eric Rowe (who should benefit further from his first offseason with the Patriots), and EDGE Trey Flowers. Even DT Malcom Brown improved, although he was already pretty good as a rookie and his growth was less noticeable.

To his credit, our own Michael McDermott nailed his prediction that Mason, Flowers, and Brown would make a sophomore jump (his fourth choice of CB Darryl Roberts should count, too, because Roberts became a starter for the Jets).

After the 2014 season, our own Bernd Buchmasser created a method of categorizing second-year players, grouping players into the following five segments:

  1. Players who played a lot of snaps
  2. Players who appeared every now and then
  3. Players who were buried on the depth chart
  4. Players who were injured
  5. Players who were new to the Patriots (i.e. non-rookies)

With these in mind, let’s look at the Patriots sophomore class for 2017 and make our predictions for their upcoming seasons. I’ve separated the playing time categories into 40%+ of the snaps for “lot of snaps”, 20%+ for “every now and then”, and everyone else that was active is “buried on the depth chart”. Players that spent the majority of their time on the practice squad are not included.

Players who played a lot of snaps

WR Malcolm Mitchell: Mitchell played 538 snaps (48.12%) and was a major contributor down the stretch, racking up 306 yards and 4 touchdowns from weeks 10-15 before an injury slowed him until his exceptional Super Bowl with 6 catches for 70 yards. He really developed a rapport with QB Tom Brady, but a nagging knee injury has sidelined him for the early part of the offseason. Factor in the addition of WR Brandin Cooks and even if Mitchell improves as a player, his production might not change.

LG Joe Thuney: Thuney led the Patriots with 1195 total regular season snaps (FS Devin McCourty was second with 1164 total snaps) and hopefully he can follow in the footsteps of Mason and Andrews and take a huge step forward in 2017. Thuney was solid as both a run block and a pass protector, but his playing strength started to disappear late in the season. Another offseason in the Patriots strength and conditioning program should prepare Thuney to become one of the top 30 guards in the league.

Players who appeared every now and then

LB Elandon Roberts: Roberts played 290 snaps during the regular season as primarily a run-stuffing linebacker. He came off the field on passing downs after he was exposed versus the Seattle Seahawks, but another year in the system could help him become more comfortable in his drops as he develops into an all-around linebacker.

DT Vincent Valentine: Valentine played 335 snaps during the regular season as a rotational defensive tackle. Valentine was drafted as a physical freak that needed a lot of technical training and that held true as a rookie. He would flash his absurd ability at times, but would otherwise be quiet. The addition of Lawrence Guy might eat into Valentine’s snaps as Guy is a superior player and should be the third man in the rotation with Brown and Alan Branch.

Players who were buried on the depth chart

QB Jacoby Brissett: Brissett actually played more than Jimmy Garoppolo (156 snaps vs 144 snaps) and played an entire game in week 4 with a busted thumb on his throwing hand. He’s made strides this offseason and could be in a position to make the Patriots comfortable moving on from Garoppolo in 2018.

RB D.J. Foster: Foster received a red-shirt season as a healthy scratch on the active roster. The Patriots really like his ability and he’s been outstanding this offseason, but he might not be able to crack such a strong running back roster.

DT Woodrow Hamilton: Hamilton only played 47 snaps in 2016, but he showed up as an outstanding run defender. He’ll have a difficult time making the the team and I wouldn’t be surprised if he followed in Darryl Roberts footsteps and became a big contributor for a different team in 2017.

CB Cyrus Jones: Jones was looking like a nice contributor early on in the season, but after he was ejected for punching someone on the Cleveland Browns, his time of the field evaporated. He finished the season with 198 snaps and almost as many fumbles on his returns. He should be able to make the roster, but he won’t receive any more benefit of the doubt as a depth player.

CB Jonathan Jones: Jones played 371 snaps (307 of them on special teams) and is looking like the Patriots top choice as slot cornerback for 2017. He seems to be cut of the same cloth as former Patriots CB Kyle Arrington as a blazing fast straight line gunner with some defensive upside. Jones could carve out a solid career in New England.

OG Ted Karras: Karras played 108 snaps and nearly all of them came in the first two weeks of the season as Shaq Mason was returning from a broken hand. He went up against the likes of Calais Campbell and Ndamukong Suh and held his own; he wasn’t great, but few look good against that duo. He is the top back-up for the offensive interior and should have the same role in 2017- and fingers crossed that he won’t get any snaps.

Players who were injured

How’s this for a surprise? OG Tre Jackson was the only young player on the Patriots reserves, with the others all multi-year veterans. Jackson is no longer with the team.

Players who were new to the Patriots (i.e. non-rookies)

WR Chris Hogan: Hogan had his best season as a pro with 680 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. His 17.9 yards per reception tied for the league lead. He is a great deep-ball receiver and a solid run blocker, but he wasn’t given an opportunity to do too much more. That could expand in 2017 or maybe Cooks can take Hogan’s entire job and offer more. Like Mitchell, I think Hogan could improve as a player in 2017, even if his production doesn’t change.

TE Matt Lengel: Lengel played 118 snaps and he played it at the level you would expect someone signed off a practice squad halfway through the year would perform. He could improve with another season in the system, but he’s a long-shot to make the roster behind Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, and James O’Shaughnessy.

LB Shea McClellin: McClellin is often a forgotten man even though he played 598 snaps in 2016. He often backed up Dont’a Hightower and saw more time on the field against stronger passing attacks; the Patriots allowed 1.03 yards fewer than expected versus the pass with McClellin on the field, the best mark for any player on the team with more than 200 snaps. Don’t count McClellin out for having another solid role in 2017.

CB Eric Rowe: Rowe played 459 snaps after the Patriots acquired him on September 7th. He battled an ankle injury before entering the starting lineup in week 7 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and became the go-to extra defensive back in nickel. He should have a similar role in 2017 and should be even better with a full offseason in the system.

LB Kyle Van Noy: The Patriots acquired Van Noy Van Noy on October 25th and didn’t start playing until a month later. He became the team’s top linebacker next to Dont’a Hightower because of his coverage and pass rushing ability. He’s not Jamie Collins, but he could serve as a similar type of player. Like Rowe, a full offseason should help Van Noy become a more complete player in the New England defense.

As an aside, Van Noy and Roberts combined into one player would be an outstanding defender. Take Van Noy’s coverage ability and size and Robert’s skill against the run and blitzing instincts and that’s a blue chip linebacker.

Of all these players in their second seasons with the Patriots, I think that Joe Thuney, Jonathan Jones, and Kyle Van Noy are set up for the biggest leaps forward in 2017. What are your thoughts?